Viets in Vogue
I've always thought that Viets are in vogue. But now that Angelina Jolie has welcomed Pax Thien into her multiculti brood, the people from the peaceful south, as we Viets are known, are representing. I think it's delicious justice that Jolie has two kids from previously warring nations: Maddox from Cambodia and Pax from Vietnam. I wonder if the tykes will play out the border skirmishes that have marred relations between their native lands in their new home. My cousin Peony joked that Pax might make flip-flops trendy.
Last week, at a dinner with colleagues from another newspaper and a PR firm, I tasted trendy Viet cuisine at Crustacean, a new high-end restaurant in Beverly Hills, Calif. An extension of San Francisco's Crustacean, where I had feasted on Dungeness crab and other modern, albeit pricey, adaptations of Viet dishes five years ago, this restaurant reminded me of an opium den with its dimly lit interior, ceiling fans, second floor interior patio made of dark wood and brightly multicolored carp swimming in the aquarium encased under the clear floors. But the restaurant wasn’t stuck in time as a colonial caricature. After all, there was a live band accompanying customers who had one too many lychee martinis on karaoke and thus turning the restaurant into another kind of caricature. Still, that distraction was minor, especially compared to the yummy food, which was prepared by the family's matriarch. And yummy is understood by everyone, no matter what language they speak.
This is the tapas trio comprising ahi tuna taco, eggroll stuffed with shrimp mousse and beef carpaccio. I think the traditional Vietnamese eggrolls are already perfect with their filling of carrots, turnips, ground pork and lump crab meat. Of the two wrappers that eggrolls are usually made with -- rice or egg -- I prefer the rice paper because it is lighter than the egg version and becomes translucent when fried. Still, Crustacean's egg wrapper version was a nice try at chichi crunchiness. The ahi tuna taco and beef carpaccio were both tasty, though I think they were probably added to the menu to appease the Euro-leaning Beverly Hills crowd.
Watercress is one of my favorite veggies. Perhaps the simplest dish my mom made was to boil the watercress in some water. After removing the cooked greens, she flavored the broth with a tomato, fish sauce and dried shrimp. We always had the boiled watercress and soup with shrimp sauteed in the shell with salt and some spices until they were a little caramelized. Here, Crustacean tossed watercress with frisee and mache, and plopped it atop thin slices of vine-ripened tomatoes and pears. The lemongrass vinaigrette was subtle, perhaps a little too much so that white pepper might have been a better seasoning than black pepper. Nonetheless, it was a very refreshing salad.
This ravioli made of rice flour was something that I could see my mom serving, if she ever had the time or energy to make banh cuon, or rice flour crepes. We usually buy it from someone who charges about $5 for a big plate that can feed three people. Crustacean opted to use fresh shrimp instead of the dried ones that were traditionally pulverized and seasoned with salt. It also stuffed the ravioli, whose wrapper was a tad thicker than expected, with braised fennel. The old-school Viet ravioli would have nothing but the dried shrimp or ground beef sauteed with dried mushrooms as filling. The garnish of fried onions added a touch of tradition.
For the fourth course, I was asked to choose between charbroiled tiger prawns and Mama Chef's famous garlic noodles or Chilean sea bass steamed on a bed of ginger and topped with scallions, cilantro and ginger citrus sauce. As you can see, I picked the shrimp with noodles. Delicious! Missy let me try a bite of her sea bass, which was also tasty. But the garlic noodles were the Viet version of comfort food, a pleasant antidote to carb-hostile Los Angeles.
Dessert was also an opportunity for me to exert my personality through the selection of a warm pistachio cake a la mode with apple ice cream or a warm walnut cake made with Godiva chocolate. So what if neither of these sweets originated in Vietnam. The chocolate cake was soft, gooey and rich. The caramelized candied walnuts sprinkled on top provided the perfect crunch. Unfortunately, I took only three bites before I had to bid quick adieus to my dinnermates and dash off to cover my last event for LA fashion week.